As It Happens

Scientists discover a new species of giant water lily that can grow up to 3 metres wide

Researchers at Kew Gardens in London, U.K., have discovered a third species of a water lily called Victoria boliviana: named after Queen Victoria.

The Victoria boliviana also has sharp spikes around their rims, says researcher Natalia Przelomska

Giant green water lilies two metres across with a bright pink underside and large white blossom on seen floating on a pond.
The newly discovered giant water lily species Victoria boliviana is seen at the Kew Gardens in London. (RBG Kew)

Story Transcript

Researchers in London say they have identified a new species of the giant water lily plant — after discovering it had been sitting serenely in their collection for 177 years.

The new species, dubbed Victoria boliviana, was at first thought to be one of the two previously known species, Victoria amazonica and Victoria cruziana, because it was so similar.

The overall genus Victoria was originally named after the U.K.'s Queen Victoria; boliviana comes from the fact that it originated from Bolivia.

But a closer look reveals several unique characteristics.

"They have these huge floating round leaves," Natalia Przelomska, a biodiversity genomics researcher with the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, told As It Happens guest host Ginella Massa. "The leaves can grow to over 10 feet in diameter," or more than three metres.

Researchers at Kew Gardens measuring the Victoria boliviana. (RBG Kew)

Like the other species, Victoria boliviana grow impressive flowers, which only bloom for about two days, turning from white to pink.

And, if you come close, they have spines around the rim and underneath the plant. Those prickly spikes help protect the plant from anything that wants to eat them. 

Those spikes "could be used to out-compete other plants" for territory, said Przelomska, who also called water lilies a "charismatic species."

Natalia Przelomska said the flowers of the water lily only bloom for about 2 days. (RBG Kew)

"It's not a very nice thing to grow next to, so these water lilies can really dominate their environment."

Przelomska and her team published their findings this week in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.

The water lily's allure

Sean Graham, a professor at the University of British Columbia's botany department, said giant water lilies have always been of interest to people, especially during Victorian times. 

"The giant water lilies have been iconic attractions in botanical gardens since Victorian times, when they were used to attract patronage of royalty at the time," he said. 

Dr. Sean Graham is a professor at the University of British Columbia's department of botany. (Elaine S. Lane)

Although this is the case, he mentioned that these giant plants have not always been "that well-studied." 

That's mainly because the Victoria plants are under-represented in museum collections. 

"Their giant, prickly floating leaves are quite hard to handle and dry down for conservation as reference herbarium specimens," Graham said.

"And unfortunately, important early reference samples were also lost or destroyed in the Second World War, further inhibiting scientific research on them."

The discovery 

Sometimes, discovering new plant species like the boliviana could be an extensive process.

Other times,"there might be just a few pieces of the puzzle that need to be slotted in so that a new species can be identified," Przelomska said. 

"It's our task to put those puzzle pieces together as rapidly as we can to discover new species." 

The leaves of the Victoria boliviana can grow up to 3 metres in diameter. (RBG Kew)

Determining why this species is so different from the other two is pretty simple, she explained: firstly, it has bigger leaves, seeds and flowers than the amazonica and cruziana

But the flower on the inside of the lily might be its most unique feature.

"This is the area within which the beetles that pollinate these flowers, get trapped for a little bit. So it can be completely covered in pollen and they fly away," she said. 

For those wondering why the scientists didn't identify the plant as a new species earlier, Przelomska said for now, there aren't enough experts to identify them. 

Przelomska with fellow researchers Oscar Pérez Escobar, Alex Monro, Carlos Magdalena and Lucy Smith with the Victoria specimens. (RBG Kew)

"While we have living plants at Kew, most of the plants we have there are actually dried specimens," she explained. 

"So we're hugely privileged to have an herbarium in which there are seven million dried plant specimens, and we just don't have enough experts to quickly go and research and identify all these new plants."

Written by Keena Alwahaidi. Interview with Natalia Przelomska produced by Morgan Passi.

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